“Animal Training My Way”—the “Abrantes Belly-Button Routine”

“The Belly-Button Routine” got its name from the fact that Roger Abrantes keeps his right hand holding the lead right in front of his belly-button. The only movement he makes with it it’s down and up, respectively when he stops and when he resumes walking after a stop. Be aware of where your right hand holding the lead is. We don’t want you or the dog to jerk it.

Notice how Professor Abranteswalks slowly forward and back, keeping a steady rhythm and changing direction very clearly, giving the dog a fair opportunity to follow him. Sometimes, he stops, and the dog must stop as well. Depending on what he ask it to do, it may sit, stand or down.

He calls this drill the kata* of dog training. Once you can do that to perfection, varying the form of the signals between hand, sound, body, and facial, you can teach your dog all you want, and a dog can learn.

Pay particular attention to:

1 – The few signals Abrantes uses.
2 – No repetitions of signals and no yelling.
3 – The consistency in the form of the signals. They are the same, every time, independently of whether he uses a sound, a hand or a body signal.
4 – The consistent and regular use of the semi-conditioned positive sound reinforcer: He says ‘dygtig.’** In SMAF: “!±sound”(dygtig). (You may have to turn your sound up to hear some of them because he whispers them).
5 – The immediate use of the inhibitor ‘ah’ when the dog shows an undesired behavior. In SMAF: [!-sound](ah).
6 – The eye contact he maintains with the dog when he asks it to do something.
7 – The few treats he uses (compared to the majority of trainers). He uses them strategically to reinforce some behaviors on specific circumstances.
8 – The contact he establishes with the dog during the performance of the drill.

To learn more about creating an effective communication and a sound relationship with your, please see our course Ethology and Behaviorism.

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* Kata (型 or 形 literally: ‘form’) is Japanese and designates the detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. Many traditional Japanese arts use kata, such as theatre forms like kabuki, and schools of tea ceremony (chadō), but are most commonly known for their use in the martial arts.

** “Dygtig” [ˈdøgdi] is a Danish word and means “clever.” It is, apparently, a good sound as a reinforcer, Abrantes discovered many years ago.   speaker-1

Quiz (for students wishing to earn study credits)

“The Abrantes Belly-Button Routine” Video Quiz

You have five minutes to complete this quiz.

 

Puppy on a Lead

In this video, Roger Abrantes shows his ‘kata’ for puppies. He walks forth and back teaching the puppy to follow, to stop when he stops, to sit, and to ‘down,’

Notice the ‘lead on the floor’ detail, stopping all movement and inducing the puppy to stop; eye contact; the correct timing of reinforcers; clear body language.

It’s all very straightforward when you apply the correct science to your training, a combination of Ethology and Behaviorism. To learn more, see our courses Ethology and Behaviorism and All About Puppies.

Quiz (for students wishing to earn study credits)

"Puppy on a Lead" Video Quiz

You have five minutes to complete this quiz.

 

Are You Teaching Your Pet Superstitious Behavior?

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Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident, a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

DogBarksAtDoor

Some cases of CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) could be superstitious behavior. The dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP cases are not even remotely connected with anxiety as the dog owners erroneously presume.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will follow sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations, so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.

Featured image: Warning: superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish.

Superstitious Behavior in Animal Training

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Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

Timberlake and Lucas concluded in 1985 “[…] that superstitious behavior under periodic delivery of food probably develops from components of species-typical patterns of appetitive behavior related to feeding. These patterns are elicited by a combination of frequent food presentations and the supporting stimuli present in the environment.”

We should be very careful when reinforcing any desirable behavior the animal we train shows us. If the reinforcement happens to coincide with other more or less accidental stimuli, we may be creating superstitious behavior. We may create superstitious behavior with any reinforcement, but probably food is the most liable to do it.

The same goes for inhibitors.1 We should always bear in mind that we never reinforce or inhibit an individual but rather a behavior.2

DogBarksAtDoor

This can be superstitious behavior: the dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) are not even remotely connected with anxiety as many dog owners erroneously presume.

In one of our Guinea Pig camps, we saw some Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created this superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another piggy would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will happen sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.
________
1“Inhibitors” were earlier called “punishers.” I coined the new term in “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know.
2 In Abrantes 2013 and 2016.

References
Abrantes, R. (2013) The 20 Principles That All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Abrantes, R. (2016) Animal Training My Way, Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
Timberlake, W and Lucas G. A. (1985). The basis of superstitious behavior: chance contingency, stimulus substitution, or appetitive behavior? J Exp Anal Behav. 1985 Nov; 44(3): 279–299.

Featured image: Superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish (photo from galleryhip.com).

Once a While We Should Focus on What Our Animals Can Teach Us

One of the most exciting aspects of the Guinea Pig camps, as far as I’m concerned, is how they evolved throughout the times.

Learning is an ongoing process and in spite of having held many GP camps, I still learn new fascinating details for every camp I have the privilege to conduct.

For example, for each camp we held, it became increasingly clear how important it is to build a good and trusting relationship with the little Guinea pig before we even consider teaching it any skills. If the piggy does not trust you, it won’t work. This should be obvious, but in these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

We also learned how efficient we can be when combining ethology with behaviorism, a daunting task many consider virtually impossible—but it is not.

Let me explain. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. Ethologists do not interfere with the animals, and as such there is no training theory to find in ethology. There is, however, much to find about interaction, communication and living together.

Behaviorism studies the behavior of animals in artificial setups. Behaviorists attempt to control the environment best possible to achieve the results they want by manipulating stimuli and consequences. As Pavlov showed, to control the environment is a much more difficult task than researchers first assumed.

Combining ethology with behaviorism means to apply the knowledge we have about the natural behavior of the animals with which we work with the principles of behavior modification that we know will lead us to proven results under controlled conditions.

It is not as easy as it looks because as soon as we leave a proven track, we are on our own. Suddenly, we have no longer a recipe to follow. We need to improvise, to dig deeper in ourselves, to find the empathy that will connect us to the animal we train. The rules, we so painstakingly have memorized, do not seem to work any longer. This is an illusion, though, for the rules work all right—though only after a myriad of tiny, individual adjustments, so that they end up resembling exceptions. In that, Guinea pig camps excel. I’ve seen it time after time in the faces of the camp participants: a mixture of excitement and doubt, comparable to what I see in my diving students the first time they jump into the sea to discover that they can actually breathe under water.

And so here I am ready to start a new Guinea Pig camp, this time at the Wolf Park in Indiana. Wolves and Guinea pigs have nothing in common except that they both have much from which we can learn. We will commute between wolf enclosures and Guinea Pig training areas, listening to their stories and learning.

We tend to focus on what we can teach our animals, but maybe once a while we should turn it around and focus on what they can teach us.

Featured image: Our animals have a lesson to teach us. In these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

Can Two Training Methods Be Equally Good?

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I receive many emails with questions about animal behavior. Most of them involve practical issues, but, now and then, someone poses a more complex question. Here is my answer to one of the latter, one I’d like to share with you because it deals with important issues for our understanding of animal behavior and training.

 

Dear ….,

Thanks for your comment, which gives me the opportunity to clarify a few issues. By no means, I see animals as biological robots or do I regard the Skinnerian approach as the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth, quite the contrary (please, consider the following passages from “Mission SMAF—Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training”).

“In fact, I suspect that [communication] even involves more than what science can describe with the intrinsic limitations of its key concepts and methods, no matter how stringent they are.”

“It seems to me, therefore, that our goal must not be to oppress or suppress emotions, but rather control them and use them advantageously. Emotional arousal proves to be necessary to learn and the right amount of emotional arousal even shows to increase the efficiency of learning processes.” (A very non-Skinnerian statement, I would say).

As to my own method to analyze learning processes in artificial set-ups (like in animal training), I write: “In a crude sense, SMAF is an oversimplification of complex processes […] certainly not an attempt to reduce complex mechanisms to a few formulas. In the end, [its] value depends solely on its successful application to solving practical problems; beyond that it has no value.”

Operant conditioning (when we use it correctly) is an efficient model of behavior for animal training because we control the conditionals to a certain extent (as Pavlov explains in its original writings, not the subsequent translations). Whilst operant conditioning is adequate to analyze behavior at a particular level, beyond that it is too crude a tool. To do that, we need evolutionary models and concepts like variation, selection, adaptation, fitness, function, evolutionary strategies, ESS (evolutionarily stable strategies), cost and benefit, etc. Thus, my approach to behavior is based on evolutionary biology and philosophically sound argumentation.

Greetings,

RAA

 

The core of the argument is reductionism, the view that we can reduce complex processes to the sum of its simpler parts. In a sense, all science is reductionistic. We attempt to explain complex processes with a few notions well organized in little boxes. That is a process that seems to suit our human brain particularly well.

However, we must bear in mind that our interpretations, independently of how good they are, are just our pictures of an elusive reality. They suit our particular umwelten but definitely not all. They explain parts of it from particular angles so we can make sense of it. Newton and Einstein, the classical example, are (probably) both right, only explaining reality at two different levels.

There’s nothing wrong about being a reductionist if only we do not get greedy and attempt to explain far too much with far too little as in, “That’s it, this is the way things are. Period.” Simplifying gets us often to the point, which complicating and oversimplifying, both have missed.

In animal training, one theory or one method can be as good as another depending on its foundations, approaches, what it attempts to explain and what practical purposes it intends to serve. If both are based on reliable evidence, use well-defined terms, and are logically sound, there’s little to choose between one or the other.

If only animal trainers would understand that, I believe we would forgo many senseless disputes.

Then again, we can brag about being the most emotional creatures on this big blue marble of ours, can’t we?

The Biggest Difference between Humans and Dogs

The biggest difference between them and us is not that we reason, and they don’t. If you want to observe rational behavior, look at the dog. If you want to see an emotional response, watch the owner.

Some animals, other than humans, do reason. They have well-developed brains and are goal-seeking. They acquire, store, retrieve, and process information. Research shows that other animals than humans also understand rules, i.e., that a series of events must happen in a particular sequence to produce a specific effect.

Animals of many species are capable of solving a broad range of problems involving abstract reasoning. The fact is that most of our research projects into animal cognition either adopt a behaviorist approach—its conditioning methods nearly turning other species than ours into automatons—or focus on particular human characteristics like speaking and counting.

The standard depiction of the ladder of nature, on which the various species occupy successively higher levels, places humans at the top. However, species have distinct kinds of cognitive processes depending on how they have adapted to their different ecological niches.

That brings us back to Darwin—the difference between humans and other animals is “[…] one of degree and not of kind.” (1871 in “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.”)

Featured image: The biggest difference between them and us is not that we reason, and they don’t (by D. Myers).